January Rules

The holidays were really fun- going from one party to another, learning how to make cookies from scratch, participating in cookie swaps, decadent dinners, brunches, and exciting Club Dine In! events. My favorite was Irvin’s dessert party. Irvin, a passionate baker and blogger, throws an annual grandiose dessert party. He bakes all of his desserts from scratch and asks his guests to bring only their sweet tooth. Irvin had 21 desserts, all displayed beautifully with name cards. I tried to take only bite-sized servings of the desserts I really wanted to try, but I decided that everything was sooo worth it. My favorites were the Red Velvet Cake with Whipped Mascarpone Cream Cheese Frosting and  Sweet Potato Cheesecake with Marshmallow Sour Cream Topping.

I baked cookies from scratch! Pistachio+Muscovado Sugar+Egg Whites+Meyer Lemon

I don’t feel that guilty about my indulgent ways in December and have set goals to get back on track to healthy eating and living. Instead of making large, undefined resolutions such as “losing weight” I’ve decided to go to the gym at least four times a week, limit desserts to once a week, and appreciate food more. I’ve also decided to clean up my act a bit more by participating in January Rules. Remember, the October: Unprocessed challenge? Andrew Wilder at Eating Rules has come up with another challenge: January Rules. This challenge is much more lax and asks you to follow only three rules. I already follow these rules normally, especially #2, but I need to more vigilant.

  1. When you eat grains, eat only 100% whole grains.
  2. Don’t eat high fructose corn syrup.
  3. Don’t eat hydrogenated oils, trans fats, or anything that’s been deep-fried.

Also, once a week, go ahead and “cheat.” Eat anything you want. I encourage all of you to kickstart 2011 with joining me on January Rules. Follow the hastag #januaryrules on Twitter for inspiration, motivation, and ideas.  Follow me on twitter for more frequent ideas on how to satisfy your sweet tooth, make unprocessed choices, and pretty pictures of food and other musings.


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A Meatless, Unprocessed Christmas (With Pumpkin Soup Recipe)

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Satish and I drove down to LA last Wednesday to spend the Christmas holiday with his sister and family. I had planned to make the Christmas Eve dinner as I really want to create tradition for Satish and I.  This entire  meal was going to be vegetarian, since my sister-in-law is a vegetarian and with all respect doesn’t like meat cooked in her kitchen. Therefore, I had packed up all of my key spices, herbs, oils, and favorite kitchen tools. I almost packed up my most versatile pan, zester, and spatula, but decided I could live without them. (Later, I learned I can’t live without the zester.) It’s tough cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen. I had plans to visit a farmer’s market in LA for the main ingredients.  LA has at least 120 farmer’s markets happening during the week, so there is hardly no excuse to not go.  I curiously went to the Westwood farmer’s market on Thursday, with high hopes of finding all of the ingredients I needed for the Christmas Eve dinner.  I was disappointed to find that it was a sparse market, but I still bought kale and parsley. Later, I met my dear friend for tea and hot soup. She suggested we stroll through the farmer’s market nearby, but time seemed to slip by at the Jewish bakery as we sipped our tea, flirted with the rows of baked goods, laughed, cried, shared, and reminisced. By the time we were ready to leave the bakery, it was dark and I needed to rush back to avoid being stuck in traffic. Of course, I didn’t listen to our GPS, made a couple of wrong turns, and missed the closest 10W onramp. Awhile ago, I stopped getting upset with myself for making wrong turns and getting lost and started enjoying the new route I created. Due to the wrong turns, I happened to drive by the La Cienega Farmers Market. Since, I was crawling in the local traffic, I got to look into the farmers market held at the parking lot of the La Cienega Plaza Shopping Center. It was beautiful. The sun was already gone, Christmas lights were bright, food trucks, fresh flowers, all amidst red break lights. Peering, I saw berries, popcorn, chestnuts, citrus, and greens. I was surprised by the berries…maybe it’s the mild, spring like weather in SoCal. I was tempted to pull into the driveway and finish shopping for the ingredients needed to make the next day’s dinner. Though, I knew that every minute I waited to get onto the highway would be to risk being stuck in major LA traffic. I sighed and kept driving.  The next morning, I woke up early and rushed to the nearest Whole Foods in hopes of avoiding the last minute mad dash for groceries. I had a simple grocery list: pumpkin, Delicata squash, arugula, eggplant, spinach, ricotta, feta, and Parmesan. The Whole Foods in Santa Monica has a very tiny fresh produce section so I drove to the one in Brentwood. Surprisingly, most of the Whole Foods in West LA are much smaller in general. I nearly had a panic attack when I couldn’t find half of the fresh ingredients that I needed. The problem was solved easily by asking the grocers, who went into the back to get what I needed. (I had not made a back-up dinner menu)…

After getting a great latte at Caffe Luxxe (which was recommended to me on twitter), I was ready to start cooking. The menu was simple but I wanted to give myself ample time and not rush to finish during the end. The starter was a rather easy pumpkin soup spiced with cumin and cinnamon. I had an incredible pumpkin soup at Garibaldi’s earlier this week, which was the main inspiration. I had even made it on Tuesday, using my beloved Fairy Tale Pumpkin. Next on the menu was the Squash and Pomegranate Salad, Kale and Quinoa, and Garlic + Bread (inspired by Little Star Pizza). The main course was a variation of my vegetable rich lasagna. My niece helped me make the pistachio cookies that I made for 18 Reasons’ cookie swap, which would be dessert along with rich, hot chocolate.

Cumin Scented Pumpkin Soup

1 medium Sugar or Fairy Tale pumpkin (4-6 lbs)
olive oil for coating pumpkin
4 large garlic cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
2 tablespoons cumin, fresh grounded
2 teaspoons cinnamon powder
1/2 stick of unsalted butter or 1/3 cup olive oil
6 cups water, approximately
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup Creme Fraiche (optional)

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Cut pumpkin in half, discard the stem, seeds and stringy pulp.  Rub oil over the pumpkin, coating well. Place the pumpkin cut side down on the prepared pan. Tuck 2 garlic cloves under the cavity of the pumpkin. Bake pumpkin until it is very tender. Remove from the oven and let cool. Once the pumpkin is cool enough to touch, remove the peel. Cut the pumpkin into smaller pieces so it’s easier to puree.

2. In a large stock pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add in the cinnamon sticks. Once the cinnamon sticks open up, add in the cumin and ground cinnamon. Cook for 30 seconds. Remove pot from heat.

3. Puree the pumpkin in batches by adding in 1 cup of the pumpkin pieces  with a 1/3 to 1/2 cup of water. Blend with an immersion blender until smooth. Add water to reach a consistency of your liking.

4. Put the pot back on the stove-top and heat on medium. Once the soup is heated thoroughly, add salt and pepper to your liking. Stir in the Creme Fraiche. Taste and adjust seasoning.


Pumpkin Soup garnished with Sage

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Eating Rules: Guide to the Nutrition Facts Panel

When I met Andrew Wilder, he was gearing up to launch his October: Unprocessed challenge and I knew we had an instant connection to demystify food and health. Andrew  is a healthy foodie who believes that although diet and nutrition information is complicated, eating healthful, delicious food doesn’t have to be.  He writes about all this and more on his blog, Eating Rules. Follow Andrew on Twitter @eatingrules or find him on Facebook.

Guide to the Nutrition Facts Panel

Once you get in the habit of reading nutrition labels, it becomes like a game. If you know what to look for, you’ll start to see patterns emerge and will be able to tell very quickly if a food is good for you or if it’s full of junk. So before you put that new box of food in your shopping cart, please ignore all the marketing claims on the front, flip the box over, and check out the nutrition facts.

My introductory guide to reading the nutrition facts label is a fun, one-page diagram, designed to give you a quick overview of what I look for on the label. I’m grateful to Nimisha for giving me the opportunity to expand a bit on a few of the points here. I’m a big believer that “knowledge is power” — so I hope that you’ll find some power in the information below.

1. Read the ingredients list first.
This is the best way to know what you’re putting in your body. Ingredients must be sorted by order of descending quantity, so there’s more of the first ingredient than any other single ingredient.  Some ingredients may have sub-ingredients, which are indicated in parentheses or brackets.

TIP: Different types of sugar can be listed separately. In the sample label on the PDF, Enriched Flour is followed by Corn Syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup, and Dextrose. It’s very likely that there’s actually more sugar than flour in that product.

2.Memorize the footer information.
The “footer” information is identical on every label. Although it’s generic, it works well as a basic guideline.  In general, women should consume around 2,000 calories a day, and men around 2,500.

Many factors influence this number, including gender, age, activity level, general health, etc., but this is a good place to start. Memorize the appropriate column for you, and then you never have to look at this section of the label every again. (Find some online calorie calculators here).

3. Servings vs. Portions.
There are no precise rules about what companies can say constitutes a “serving,” so it’s sometimes hard to compare products. They are, however, required to show the number of servings per container. Keep in mind that a serving may be different than a portion.  An appropriate serving of meat is four ounces — but a steak served at a restaurant may be eight or more ounces. Be realistic about how many servings you’re actually going to eat.

4. Calories are still king.
If you know how many calories you should eat in a day, and you know how many calories are in a serving, then it just takes some basic math to figure out if this food fits well into your overall diet  A snack should probably be no more than around 200 calories.  TIP: Most whole fruits — a perfect snack from mother nature — are around 100 calories.

5. So much salt!
Sadly, most packaged foods have waaaaaay too much sodium. If a product has more milligrams of sodium than it does calories, it’s probably too high. It’s somewhat unrealistic in the current food climate to think you can do better with packaged foods, but it’s still a good guideline to keep your eye on,  TIP: Breads and soups are the worst offenders, so watch those extra carefully.

6. Fiber is fabulous.
It’s generally true that the more naturally-occurring fiber in a food, the better it is for you. But beware: Manufacturers now add fiber to many products, and there’s no distinction on the label.  If you see inulin, polydextrose, maltodextrin, or modified wheat starch in the ingredients list, it’s got added fiber. Though it’s not likely to hurt, and may indeed be good, the benefits of this extra fiber are not yet proven. Aim to eat 25-38 grams of naturally-occurring fiber every day from whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fresh fruits & vegetables. Learn more from my Fiber Primer.

7. Sugar is sugar.
Unfortunately, the nutrition label doesn’t distinguish between naturally-occurring sugars and added sugars, so it’s simplest just to assume less is better.  TIP: There’s about four grams of sugar in a teaspoon of regular table sugar, so divide the number shown on the label by four and visualize that many teaspoons of sugar. Still hungry?

8. Pack on the protein.
Dietary recommendations on protein vary widely, but the easiest guideline I’ve found is to aim for about ½ gram of protein per pound of body weight each day. (Example: A 160-pound person should eat about 80 grams a day). Remember, it’s important get your protein from a variety of sources. Look for beans & legumes, nuts, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and smaller portions of lean meats.

9. Fat Fallacy.
Not all fats are bad (and some are even good), and eating fat doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get fat. Avoid man-made trans fats like the plague, and watch out for the trans fat loophole: If a food has partially-hydrogenated or hydrogenated oils in the ingredients, it has trans fats! (The number shown can be rounded down to zero). Polyunsaturated fats are the good stuff, but mono-unsaturated fats are okay, too. TIP: Fat has 9 calories per gram (carbs and protein each have around 4), so more fat does mean more calories.

10. Vitameatavegamin?
Of course it’s important to get your daily dose of vitamins and minerals, but I don’t usually give this area of the label more than a passing glance. Are you really going to sit there and tally up your vitamin and mineral intake?  If you know you’re deficient in a particular one (or more), then you should definitely do it.  But otherwise, if you’re going to count something, it’s probably more worthwhile to count calories and naturally-occurring fiber. Eat a lot of different whole fruits & veggies, and you’ll do better than trying to get all your vitamins and minerals from a packaged food.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide or to replace any qualified medical advice. It’s just an overview, and I’ve left lots of important stuff out. For more in-depth information, check out the FDA’s Consumer Nutrition and Health Information.

October: Unprocessed and No-Single Use Challenge Updates!

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On October 1st, I joined over 350 people on the October: Unprocessed challenge.  Basically, in this challenge we have pledged to give up processed foods for the month. Processed foods are foods that have ingredients that you wouldn’t keep in your kitchen to make food or ingredients that were created in a laboratory. Unprocessed food is any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with readily available, whole-food ingredients. “It doesn’t mean that you have to be able to make the food — but that the food could be made in a home kitchen by someone who knows what they’re doing.  If it needs high-powered, industrial equipment, or could only be made in a laboratory, then it’s out, ” Andrew  Wilder explained.

At the same time, I pledged to consciously reduce the amount of  new single-use plastic I bring into my life, inspired by Fake Plastic Fish. Single use disposable plastics are product packaging that is used once and discarded. Bags, wrappers, containers, utensils, cups, bottles,  containers, etc. I now question every item that comes in plastic and it’s potential long term benefits or harm. Do I need toothpaste (cap is plastic)- yes, do I need chips from a plastic bag- no!

I am 20 days into both challenges and here is what I have learned so far:

1. If I am not eating fresh homemade meals or using store bought products (ie pasta sauce, soy sauce) to make my meals, I must read the ingredients label carefully. There are  a lot of hidden, unnecessary ingredients in prepackaged/prepared foods. For instance, when you pick up a loaf of bread, you assume the ingredients are just water, flour, yeast and salt. However, if you read the ingredients label you might find 10 other ingredients. Real bread usually comes in a brown bag fresh from the bakery, not pre-sliced in a plastic bag. Therefore, by choosing whole foods over processed/pre-packaged food, I am avoiding plastic.

2. Breakfast is the toughest part of the unprocessed food challenge. I love cereal. I survived exams in college on cereal alone. Sadly, most breakfast cereals are fortified with crap. Even though over the years  I cut out processed cereals, it’s really hard to completely avoid processed ingredients. I started examining what other cultures eat for breakfast. I found that Persians eat feta cheese, dates, flatbread, and nuts; South Indians eat savory dishes such as upma and dosas, Koreans eat rice, soup, and eggs, and Jamicans eat ackee, callaloo, and mackeral. All of these foods are whole foods- whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seafood, and meats. We stopped eating cereals and started eating non-quick oatmeal, upma (Satish grew up with it), eggs (standard for us), and fruits. Cereal comes in a plastic bag inside of a cardboard box. I haven’t bought cereal in the the last 20 days and thus have not introduced new plastic in the form of cereal. Healthier Plant = Healthier Body.

3. We eat a lot more fresh fruit, nuts and dried fruit. Fruits for breakfast with nut butters and cheese, fruits for in between meals, and fruits to satisfy the sweet tooth. Fruits do not come in plastic packages, unless if you shop at Costco or Trader Joe’s.

4. No power bars. We only ate power bars when we were 0n the road or lazy. Well 99.5% of the power bars out there are fortified and have unnatural ingredients. Though, Lara Bars are made with only whole food ingredients and don’t claim any health benefits on their packaging. We decided to forgo all power bars due to packaging. It’s easier to eat fruit, which doesn’t come in any packaging.

5. Plastic is everywhere! The barrista will put a straw into my drink faster than I can blink my eye. I have told a bartender that I didn’t want the thin black straw in my drink, yet he mechanically put it in my glass. I have not forgot my reusable grocery bags once! Nor have a succumbed to buying plastic water bottles when thirsty. I carry by stainless steel bottle or use the water fountain.

6. When at the grocery store, I only shop around the perimeter. This is because all whole food ingredients are usually lined around the perimeter of the store and the processed foods are conveniently located in the center. Yogurt, cheese, and milk caps all come in plastic and I have not found alternatives yet.

7. I have started questioning more details whens dining out or grabbing food to go. Does the restaurant make their own sauces or use an industrial sauce? Where do the poultry/seafood/meat come from? Will the “doggie bag” be placed in cardboard to go box or a plastic container? Does the restaurant use disposable utensils or steel utensils? Does the restaurant recycle and compost materials?

8. We are saving money. Fruit and vegetables are cheaper than ice-cream, chocolate, and chips, and they can be used in many ways. We eliminated these items completely and were able to save money on our weekly grocery bill. Also, produce seems to have gotten cheaper at the Farmer’s Market. Last month, I paid $3/pound of heirloom tomatoes, this month I have paid $2/pound. Non-heirloom varieties are even cheaper!

9. Eating unprocessed foods and avoiding single-use plastics almost go hand-in-hand. I have failed several times on these challenges but I am not quitter. First of all, I broke down and had a cupcake made by Elizabeth Falkner at the Blog Her Food 2010 Conference. Dessert is my biggest weakness, but I have been strong and resisted 95% of the time. That is an achievement for me. I have also switched to Mascovado sugar, which is completely unrefined.

This is just a short list of the major changes/observations  I have made on this challenge. Again, I was never big consumer of processed foods to begin with but this challenge has made me more consciously aware.

Plastic collected during week 2: all could have been avoided.

If you just discovered October: Unprocessed, go here to find out more and take the pledge. Don’t worry if you missed the start date! You can start your 30 days today, or simply join in for the rest of the month.

Did you know that Club Dine In! is on Twitter and Facebook? Follow @clubdinein for daily health, fitness, and social news, recipes and delicious tips! Join the Club Dine In! community on Facebook to connect with like-minded individuals and find out about exclusive Club Dine! events.

Real Bread and a Recipe

Factory Automation with industrial robots for ...

Image via Wikipedia

Tartine is simply a French word for an open faced sandwich, usually with jam or a spread on top. And I LOVE tartines. They can be casual, easy, fancy, complicated, but always scrumptious. The key in making a tartine is using fresh, unprocessed bread. The bread should be simple, like an old-fashion country loaf, made with as little as four real ingredients.  Skip the loaves that contain sugars, preservatives, additives, hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, and corn syrup. There is a distinct difference in taste and texture with breads made fresh at home or a small bakery compared to the bread found in supermarkets. Most breads sold in supermarkets are made on an industrial scale (mass-produced) and meant to have a long shelf-life (not grow old). Also, bread found in the supermarket is usually pre-sliced for your convenience, which would normally become stale a lot faster than an unsliced loaf of bread. To extend the shelf-life of the bread, the breadmakers (chemists) add a ton of  preservatives and possibly other additives to make the bread look attractive (dyes, bleach). The goal of industrial bread makers is to make the bread as cheaply as possible by using low quality ingredients, extending the shelf-life, and charging consumers the pre-sliced convenience fee. Taste and nutrition are really not important factors in the bread making process. However, a true bread maker puts in a lot of dedication and passion into making each loaf. Let’s compare the ingredient lists between typical store-bought bread and one that would be made at home:

Store Bought Bread

Enriched Bleached Flour [Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Folic Acid], Water, Whey, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Yeast, Contains 2% or Less of Each of the Following: Sugar, Wheat Gluten, Calcium Sulfate, Soybean Oil, Salt, Dough Conditioners (May Contain One or More of the Following: Mono- and Diglycerides, Ethoxylated Mono- and Diglycerides, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Calcium Peroxide, DATEM, Ascorbic Acid, Azodicarbonamide, Enzymes), Guar Gum, Calcium Propionate (Preservative), Distilled Vinegar, Yeast Nutrients (Monocalcium Phosphate, Calcium Sulfate, Ammonium Sulfate and/or Calcium Carbonate), Corn Starch, Vitamin D3, Soy Lecithin, Soy Flour.

Homemade/ Artisan Bread

Flour, Water, Yeast, Salt.

Slice your own bread, it’s worth it!

I  like to get my loaf from Tartine Bakery, Acme Bread, and La Boulangerie. Though I try not get it too often, as I cannot practice any restraint around a fresh, aromatic loaf. I like to eat tartines with warmed jams and nut butters, pure butter, fresh fruits, or heirloom tomatoes, cheeses,  grilled chicken breast, arugula, or farm fresh eggs.

Which loaf of bread would you feel comfortable eating and digesting? Which do you think is better for your kids and family?

Early Autumn Savory Tartine

1/2 cup cherry tomatoes
1 tsp garlic, chopped
2 tsp olive oil, plus more for coating pan
1/2 cup zebra zucchini, sliced
1/3 cup onions, sliced
1 small ripe heirloom tomato
2 slices of a country loaf bread
2 tbs sharp cheddar cheese, grated
2 tbs goat cheese, crumbles
2 tbs Parmesan cheese, grated
1 tsp dried basil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper


1. In a mixing bowl, toss 1 tsp olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, and cherry tomatoes to mix well. Meanwhile, heat a cast iron pan (or nonstick skillet) on medium heat. Gently toss the cherry tomatoes in the pan and let cook until the skins are wrinkly and juice starts to burst out, about 7-10 minutes. Stir frequently.

2. In the same skillet or another, cook the onions until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Cook the zucchini until tender, about 5 minutes. You may need to drizzle a little olive oil over the pan so the onions or zucchini does not stick. Meanwhile, slice the heirloom tomatoes and reserve the juice.

3. Toast the slices of bread in a toaster or on the skillet (my preference, so it picks up flavor and oil from the vegetables). Sprinkle the cheeses over the bread immediately after it’s done toasting. Pour the reserved juice of the heirloom tomato over the bread. Layer the zucchini, onion and tomatoes over the bread. Sprinkle salt, pepper, and dried basil over the tartine. Enjoy warm with a side salad.

Makes two tartines.